Teach Your Puppy to Like Human Handling

Teach your puppy to accept and enjoy handling as a normal part of life.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #43

Our poor dogs--subject to so many indignities! We hold their feet captive while we clip their nails. We pull burrs out of their tangled coats. Ouch. We hold their mouths open for centuries while we examine their teeth. This week, how to help your puppy grow into a dog who’s comfortable with handling--and how to help a grown dog who’s twitchy about human touch.

Starting with a young puppy gives you a leg up. In my article on socialization, I described the “sensitive period” of life, which continues up to the age of 12 to 16 weeks. During this period, puppies learn which experiences are normal and safe--and those experiences should include human handling.

Teach Your Dog to Like Human Handling and Touch

As you cuddle your puppy, gently manipulate body parts. Stretch out his legs; press his paw pads to extend his toes. Take hold of his upper and lower jaws, open his mouth gently, and pop in a tiny piece of chicken. Practice that a few times, then hold his mouth open a little longer and play dentist--inspect those bright white teeth. Clip a toenail every day, and every time you clip a toenail, give your puppy a treat.

Hold his head steady and look into his ears. Lift up his tail and touch his anus with a gloved finger or the tip of a cotton swab--he’ll be getting his temperature taken at the vet’s for the rest of his life.

Do Handling Exercises with Your Puppy

With a tissue or a moistened towel, clean sleepy gunk from the corners of your puppy’s eyes. Even if he has a short coat, give him a few strokes with a soft brush every day. Wipe his legs and feet with a towel. You’ve seen video of monkeys picking through each other’s coats looking for fleas? Pick through your puppy’s coat just like that. Unless you’re one of those rare people who never ever forgets the preventive, you will probably find yourself plucking ticks someday.

The trick is to keep these exercises light and pleasant, and--this is crucial--to pair them with fun, affection, and treats. No need for marathon handling sessions. Just include bits of all kinds of touch in your usual affectionate interactions with your pup. The message is that there’s nothing special or out of the ordinary about, say, a nail being clipped; it’s just another weird thing people do, and by the way sometimes a dog gets a little piece of chicken, or a ball toss, or a butt scritch out of it.

Teach Your Puppy to Accept Restraint

Dogs sometimes have to be restrained--at the vet’s, for instance, when blood is being drawn. Many trainers advise that you teach your puppy to accept restraint by cradling her on her back and, if she struggles, not letting her go till she gives up. That approach does work with many or most pups, but a significant minority struggle frantically--I would even call them panicked. Some frantic puppies just keep trying to escape; some will experiment with a growl or a nip. And, of course, you can’t know whether your puppy falls into the “Eh, I’m being held” group or the “Lemme go lemmego lemme go!” group till you’ve made the experiment. Guess wrong and it gets mighty hard to convince Baby Dogalini that restraint is really okay after all. Not to mention that she trusts you a little less than she did before.

Teach Restraint Gradually

So, instead of holding your puppy while she struggles and letting her go when she gives up, do this: Pick a time when she’s relaxed and sleepy to begin with, then hug her and hold her still for a nanosecond. Release her before she has time to do more than notice that she’s being held. Over a couple of weeks, gradually prolong the time for which you hold her still, but take care to stay within her comfort zone.

If you hit a point where she begins to struggle,


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).